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Interview: 'I Am Quite Hopeful That A Win-Win Solution Is Possible' On Kosovo

British Foreign Minister William Hague (left) meets with Serbian President Boris Tadic in Belgrade on August 31.
British Foreign Minister William Hague (left) meets with Serbian President Boris Tadic in Belgrade on August 31.
There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity surrounding the issue of Kosovo, ahead of the UN General Assembly session this month in New York. Despite a recent ruling by the UN's highest court saying Kosovo's 2008 independence declaration did not violate international law, Serbia has submitted a draft resolution to the General Assembly that calls on the member states to revisit the issue of whether the declaration was legal.

Top Western diplomats, including British Foreign Minister William Hague and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, have visited Belgrade in recent days in an effort to urge Serbian officials to soften the tone of the resolution, which goes before the assembly on September 9. Serbian President Boris Tadic has indicated a willingness to discuss possible modifications to the text but says there is no compromise on the issue of Serbia's recognition of Kosovo. "That is the red line that we will not cross," he says.

Dragan Stavljanin, a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Balkans Service, recently spoke about the latest developments with Stefan Wolff, a professor of international security at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. and an expert in postconflict reconstruction.

RFE/RL: It appears that Serbia remains intransigent in furthering its agenda with regard to its draft resolution on Kosovo, despite the very clear message conveyed by British Foreign Secretary William Hague during his recent visit to Belgrade that the Serbian authorities should withdraw their proposal.

Stefan Wolff:
It is not entirely clear yet whether Hague’s visit will have achieved anything tangible regarding Serbia’s stance on Kosovo, including the draft resolution submitted for discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting later this month. What is obvious, however, is that there is significant concern among Serbia’s major Western partners about the draft resolution and that they would like to see it either withdrawn or amended in such a way that it does not further complicate the situation in the Balkans and between the countries of that region and the European Union. This is also clear from the fact that Hague’s visit is the second by a senior Western diplomat in less than a week, following that of the German foreign minister [on August 26].

Stefan Wolff
RFE/RL: German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Belgrade a few days ago that the issue of Kosovo should be discussed in Brussels, not in New York. It appears that the EU is keen at any price to avoid a discussion at the upcoming session of the General Assembly, but is an ultimatum to Serbia to withdraw it really possible?

At this stage, and given the publicity that has surrounded the draft resolution, a withdrawal is unlikely in my view and would be rather counterproductive. It would weaken the current Serbian government domestically and could lay the EU open to charges of bullying Serbia. If anything, an amendment might be more helpful. It could endorse further talks between Belgrade and Pristina to resolve a number of issues resulting from Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 and its subsequent recognition by almost 70 countries, including the United States and 22 out of 27 EU member states.

On the basis of such a resolution, which would avoid delving further into the legality of Kosovo’s de facto independent statehood, the EU could facilitate and mediate talks between the two sides that would lead to a comprehensive settlement of all remaining issues. A discussion and vote on the draft resolution as it stands right now is unlikely to achieve this.

If the resolution is defeated, Serbia’s government will be in a weaker position in negotiations that are necessary for both sides; if the resolution is carried, another round of legal arguments would likely delay substantive talks on how to manage and improve the situation on the ground as it exists right now.

In either case, we also have to consider the repercussions for the EU itself, which remains split on the Kosovo issue, and the broader impact on similar conflicts elsewhere.

RFE/RL: What can be expected from the session of the UN General Assembly? A kind of a compromise between Serbia and the West in a way where Serbia softens its resolution or even withdraws it? The rejection of Serbia’s resolution? The adoption of a resolution submitted by another country?

The dynamic at the General Assembly is always a bit unpredictable. In my view, a compromise on the wording of the resolution that focuses it on the need for further talks aimed at some sort of normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina would be the best possible outcome. This would concentrate minds on the future and give both sides legitimacy in talking with each other [and] avoid embarrassing climb-downs or the destabilization of governments.

RFE/RL: As the UN General Assembly session approaches, warnings from the EU to Serbia that its hopes for European integration would be dashed if it stays adamantly opposed to Kosovar independence are getting more vocal. However, given the fact that five members of the EU don’t recognize Kosovo's independence -- and the EU’s overall inability to work out an efficient foreign policy -- is it possible for Brussels to cobble together a workable strategy regarding the Kosovo issue?

The EU has so far managed its internal split reasonably well. The disagreements that exist are primarily driven by domestic concerns of countries afraid that recognizing Kosovo’s independence will backfire and embolden secessionist movements within their own borders. But even these countries could eventually recognize Kosovo if Belgrade would no longer contest Kosovo’s secession.

In this sense, all 27 EU member states have a common aim: Belgrade need not necessarily recognize Pristina but the two sides need to work out a modus vivendi. The important thing here is the process of getting there as much as the end result, and the EU can play a significant role in both, not least because further European integration -- and finally EU membership -- remain the best guarantees of peace and stability in the Balkans.

RFE/RL: Do you think the EU could put pressure on Serbia to exact its concession, or would the EU really block Serbia’s entry if it doesn’t change its mind over the Kosovo issue?

Without resolving the relationship between Belgrade and Pristina, neither Serbia nor Kosovo will be able to get closer to the EU. However, all three parties to that -- Brussels, Belgrade, and Pristina -- have a common interest in the European integration of the entire Balkans region and hence in resolving this issue. The trick to achieve this will be patience.

The issues that need to be settled are complex at many levels -- locally, regionally, and internationally -- and the process to get to a resolution will require leadership, diplomacy, and a flexible and innovative approach to how to structure future relations between Belgrade and Pristina and between them and the EU in such a way that all sides can save face while recognizing the reality on the ground.

RFE/RL: Although Serbia declares membership in the EU as its top foreign policy priority, there is no doubt that if it’s forced to choose -- the EU or recognition of Kosovo independence -- Serbia would disavow its European prospects. It appears the EU is underestimating it.

This is probably true, so it will be important to move carefully and avoid this kind of forced choice. Even though the situation is very complex, if the parties negotiate in good faith, are willing to make compromises and remain focused on their European future, a settlement will be possible.

RFE/RL: Kosovar institutions, with the support of the United States, have launched a diplomatic initiative aimed at securing further recognitions of Kosovo's independence. But no other countries have announced their recognition of Kosovo following the favorable advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in July. Do you expect that some countries may recognize Kosovo on the eve of the General Assembly or following its outcome?

Personally, I think that more recognitions are inevitable, but I am not sure that this will be most helpful in the current situation, nor is it useful to obsess with the recognition issue. How much, for example, does it matter whether Somalia -- a country with no functioning government for almost two decades -- recognizes Kosovo? This will not have any material consequence at the moment.

What is far more important is how quickly Belgrade and Pristina can get down to the business of sorting out their relationship and how quickly they make substantive progressive in talks that will generate enough positive momentum to tackle even the most thorny issues on the way toward a comprehensive settlement. Once this has been accomplished, the issue of recognitions will be far less divisive and less useful to exercise pressure on one side or another.

RFE/RL: Could Kosovo pass the threshold for becoming a member of the UN? Or will Russia and China, as the veto-wielding members of the Security Council, continue blocking Kosovo's entrance to the world organization?

In the foreseeable future, I don’t think that Kosovo will muster the necessary support in the General Assembly or the Security Council for UN membership. Important as such membership may be, the best way to achieve it is by settling the issues on the ground in such a way that Belgrade could find a way to drop its opposition to Kosovo’s UN membership.

RFE/RL: How can we find the way out from the current stalemate? Serbia insists that under no circumstances would it recognize Kosovo's independence. Kosovo, on the other hand, claims it can negotiate with Serbia only on technical issues. Do you think it is realistic to seek a solution in terms of autonomy for the north of Kosovo, emulating for example the model of South Tyrol, or the partitioning of Kosovo, or the swap of territory, i.e. northern Kosovo in exchange for the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia, as some pundits suggest, including the latest report of the International Crisis Group. Although the international community, as well as Pristina and Belgrade, are adamantly opposed to these ideas.

There are two different issues here, albeit closely connected ones: the issue of Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo as an independent state and the status of the northern Mitrovica region in Kosovo.

The first point is that a normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia does not require the former’s recognition by the latter. West Germany never recognized East Germany but over time -- after more than two decades, to be precise -- the two found a formula of words that enabled them to have "official" relations, "permanent representatives" in each other’s capital, and both be members of the UN, regardless of the fact that the West German foreign minister at every UN General Assembly ritualistically noted that his country sought to overcome the division of Germany.

The second point is about status and borders. The key issue here is that whatever is negotiated emerges as a genuine compromise between the two sides, one that they are willing to implement and operate in good faith. I am personally not a great fan of partitions, population exchanges, swaps of territory, etc., mostly because they have something medieval about them and have historically a track record of causing immense human suffering, even if they eventually lead to some sort of stability.

Having said that, the world has moved on from the population exchanges and expulsions after the Balkan wars and the First and Second World Wars, and maybe if both sides agree and if there is full support from the international community and within the region, this “solution” should not be taken off the table even before the sides have an opportunity to consider it.

Personally, I would prefer a model that does not open up an inevitable Pandora’s box of further boundary changes and forced migrations across the region and elsewhere. There are some very good examples of autonomy and power-sharing arrangements that could serve as examples for a settlement, including South Tyrol, Northern Ireland, and the Åland Islands, to name but three of the more obvious ones.

The key, however, is that whatever settlement is achieved must have the support from both sides and the backing of the international community. Anything imposed from the outside is unlikely to achieve sustainable peace and stability.

RFE/RL: Many in Serbia now feel that Kosovo is lost to Serbia, but seek a kind of a concession. For the authorities in Belgrade, at least, an honorable exit strategy is badly needed. There is a theory circulating that if Kosovo is definitely lost to Serbia without any concessions, then Serbia would embark on a long-term strategy of undermining Bosnia by supporting the secessionist aspirations of Republika Srpska, which would eventually secede from Bosnia and join Serbia. Is this scenario realistic?

I am not sure how realistic a scenario this is. Much will depend on the Serbian government and its willingness to embark on such a course of action and the public pressure it may face to do so. It is definitely not something that would be desirable for the region as a whole. In the same way that a swap of territories or a partition of Kosovo might trigger more pressure for a comprehensive redrawing of boundaries across the Balkans, Belgrade’s support for Republika Srpska’s secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina, too, would not be the end of it.

Croats in Bosnia, Albanians in Macedonia, Serbs in Kosovo may not all share the view that international borders are sacrosanct and that their grievances -- real or imagined -- can be addressed effectively within the states in which they live and/or within the framework of European integration.

RFE/RL: Almost all ethnic conflicts worldwide look like a zero-sum game. Is it possible to find and implement a creative approach which would provide for a “win-win” solution?

There are many examples of such win-win settlements. They normally involve various forms of self-governance and power sharing, respect for human and minority rights, fair distribution of national wealth, and the recognition of distinct identities as equal. Institutions that can provide all of this are not difficult to create. What is more difficult is to find the local leaders and international diplomats willing to do so.

In the case of Kosovo and Serbia, and the Balkans more generally, I am quite hopeful that a win-win solution is possible, not least because there is a clear European perspective here. But it will take time for a sustainable solution to be achieved and we must not have unrealistic expectations about the speed with which it can be brought about.

Sometimes, it simply takes a while before people on all sides realize that there is no good war and no bad peace.

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